Luther: A Life by John M. Todd
John M. Todd is the author of a number of books, including Reformation, and John Wesley and the Catholic Church. Luther: A Life was published in 1982 by The Crossroad Publishing Company. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Chapter 17: The Old Man
‘I am a veteran who has served his time and would prefer to spend his time in the garden, enjoying the geriatric pleasures of watching God’s wonders in the blooming of the trees, flowers and grass, and in the mating of the birds!’ wrote Luther to Justus Jonas on 8 April 1538. The note of weariness and longing for death was becoming more frequent. He was seldom in good health and became impatient for the end: ‘I am more dead than alive. I am overwhelmed with writing letters and books; theological lectures and the stone, and much else weigh me down.’ But there was content, too. Later in the same letter to Link of 20 June 1543, he wrote: ‘I desire a good hour for passing on to God. I am content, I am tired and nothing more is in me. Yet see to it that you pray earnestly for me, that the Lord take my soul in peace. I do not leave our congregations in poor shape; they flourish in pure and sound preaching, and they grow day by day through many excellent and most sincere pastors.
Still alive at the end of the following year in a letter to James Propst, he was back again to a certain despair of the world: ‘Yes, I am sluggish, tired, cold — that is I am an old and useless man. I have finished my race. It remains only that the Lord call me to my fathers, and that my body be handed over to decomposition and the worms. I have lived enough, if one may call it living. Please pray for me that the hour of my passing will be pleasing to God, and a blessing for me. . . It looks as if the whole world, too, has come to its passing.’
But these final years were to last nearly a decade and were again crammed with activity even though undertaken in the face of great weariness and ill-health.
Before midsummer 1537, Luther had recovered sufficiently from the attack of stone to be able to return to work. The University lectures on Genesis were resumed. Then it also Fell to him to start regular preaching in the parish church on a Saturday. Bugenhagen, the parish priest had been asked for by King Christian III of Denmark to assist the reforms there. The Elector agreed that he should go, on condition that his parish duties were properly covered. The Saturday preaching originated in a suggestion of Luther’s in The German Mass (1526), for a preaching service on that day based on St John’s Gospel. So at the beginning of July 1537, Luther started on St John chapter 1, in Wittenberg parish church. Bugenhagen was supposed to be back by the autumn, but it was two years before he returned. From time to time Luther was too ill or too tired, but apart from that he preached every Saturday on this his favourite text. It was the incarnation which held him. He got into his stride and was only on chapter 4 when Bugenhagen returned, even then continuing for a few weeks in order to reach the end of the chapter. It was Christ, ‘the God-den man’, whom he was never tired of propounding. In his opening sermons he took John’s chosen title of ‘Christ, the Word’, and spoke of the tumultuous feelings of man’s heart to provide some analogy of God’s own internal ‘conversation’ in the Trinity. Luther drew again on his early studies of Augustine in developing such ideas:
Suppose it were possible to peer into each other’s heart, I into yours and you into mine . . . We could either impart the whole content of our heart to each other out of love, or, to use a current expression we would devour and choke each other out of anger. Now if it is true that I cannot fully express the thoughts of my heart, how many thousand times less will it be possible for me to understand or to express the Word or conversation in which God engages within his divine being. . .God, too, in his majesty, is pregnant with a Word or a conversation in which he engages with himself in his divine essence and which reflects the thoughts of his heart. . . It is an invisible and incomprehensible conversation.
Luther also published at this time his Three Symbols or Creeds of the Christian Faith to develop the assertion of traditional Christian doctrine in the Schmalkaldic Articles. Luther calls on the early Fathers to expound the Trinity comparing the Father to the sun, the Son to its brilliance and the Holy Spirit to its heat.
By the end of the preaching stint, Luther was drawing on a less speculative seam of traditional teaching, personal and practical, commenting on the incident of the Woman at the Well:
When God wants to speak and deal with us, he does not avail himself of an angel but of parents, of the pastor, or of my neighbour. This puzzles and blinds me so that I fail to recognise God, who is conversing with me through the person of the pastor or father. This prompts the Lord Christ to say in the text: If you knew the gift of God, who it was that is saying to you "Give me a drink" then I would not be obliged to run after you and beg for a drink.’
He seemed unable to leave the incarnation alone. At the University on 11 June 1539 he presided over a Disputation on ‘The Word was made Flesh’, the purpose of which was to show the inadequacy of elementary logic in theological matters. Again, he was harping back to his thought of thirty years ago.
The pulpit, the lecture podium, and above all the home continued to be Luther’s theatre of operation. At home he still found time for numerous interests. Music was increasingly a delight and a refuge. He wrote and published a Latin piece in Praise of Music: ‘Music has often stirred me. . . so that I wanted to preach . . .Nothing on earth has greater power to make the sad joyful, the joyful sad, the despondent courageous to incline the arrogant to humility and to lessen envy and hatred’. An ability to sing was an essential qualification for a schoolmaster, otherwise I would not look at him’.
Luther’s favourite composer was that now newly famous late medieval musician Josquin des Pres: ‘A very special master. . .the notes have to do what he wants them to do; the other musicians have to do what the notes want. Josquin was not well known in Germany and it was Luther’s particular musical perception to pick him out. Some thought the new polyphonic style more for the court than the church. But Luther delighted in the new developments. ‘One single voice continues to sing the tenor, while at the same time many other voices play around it, exulting and decorating it in exuberant strains, and as it were leading it forth in a divine roundelay,’ wrote Luther in the Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae Jucundae, 1538. Rhau was at St Thomas’s church, Leipzig, where Bach would be and it was he who had composed the Mass for the opening of Luther’s Leipzig debate with Eck. In the last years of his life Luther tried his own hand at a motet, using for the melody a cantus firmus of the Gregorian plain chant which he loved so much. The Latin words were ‘Non moriar sed vivam’— ‘I shall not die but live and declare the works of the Lord’. It was this text of hope which Senfl had sent back to him, set to music, as a word of encouragement when Luther had written him in melancholy mood from the Coburg asking him to set ‘In peace I will lay me down and sleep’.
Complicated Latin motets were suitable for the well educated. But in the ordinary church services Luther had continued to follow the pattern he set in the twenties, providing German words and music which were simple to sing and hear. A stream of words and musical compositions had continued to flow from him to the printer. He wrote a Christmas carol for his children in 1534. He did a setting of the Our Father in 1539. In general it can be said that Luther, using the rich musical culture that he inherited, set the words of the Bible to music and originated the church chorale.
Music and grammar were bracketed together as the two disciplines in which Luther wished his son to progress further, when sending sixteen-year-old Hans up the river to Torgau (26 August 1542) to the flourishing school there run by a graduate of Wittenberg, one Marcus Crodel. Luther had become by now the traditional German parent, and mirrored his own father’s mixed jocularity and severity. A nephew. Florian von Bora, was sent up along with Johann Luther. Crodel was told ‘be very strict with this one’. Then, two days later, there was an angry letter from Luther demanding a thrashing for Florian for his misdeed in stealing a knife from Johann and then denying it. Luther had had the story from an indignant Paul Luther on his return from accompanying the two older boys.
Two days later there was another emotional letter from Luther to Crodel:
. . .Keep quiet to my son about what I am writing. . . my daughter Magdalen is ill and almost in her last hour; in a short while she might depart to her true Father in heaven. . . She longs so much to see her brother . . . They loved each other so much; perhaps his arrival could bring her some relief. I am doing what I can so that later the knowledge of having left something undone does not torture me. . .Without giving Johann any reason, tell him to fly back in this carriage. He will return to you soon, when Magdalen either has fallen asleep in the Lord or has recovered.
Thirteen-year-old Magdalen died a few days after Johann’s return. Her parents were distraught, although also comforted by the way their daughter had accepted the foreseen death. Luther wrote to Jonas ‘Magdalen had, as you know, a mild and lovely disposition and was loved by all. Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ who has called, elected and made her glorious.’ Still upset a few weeks later, he wrote to Papst: ‘She died having total faith in Christ . . . I loved her so very much.’ He still could not tame his emotions and confessed to ‘a certain threatening murmur
There was plenty on Luther’s desk. He had still to be studying the nature of the Church and the style of authority. His text ‘On the Councils and the Churches’ written in German was published in 1539. He concentrated on the first four centuries, and deprecated the need for and importance of later councils: ‘A council has no power to establish new articles of faith, even though the Holy Spirit is present. Even the apostolic council in Jerusalem introduced nothing new in matters of faith but rather held that which St Peter concludes in Acts 6 . . . the article that one is saved without the laws, solely through the grace of Christ.’ However, he thought there might be a place for a council when something like the Pope’s tyranny had to be abolished. So there might be a need for a council now, even though there was a risk it would just be an occasion for arguing about the order of speaking and for debauchery. A Free Christian Council in Germany might be a good thing ‘if we did our part in it and sincerely sought God’s honour and the salvation of souls’, and so it might have an echo in other countries. But the local Church was what really mattered. They could have little councils, ‘small and young councils, that is parishes and schools, and propagate St Peter’s article in every possible way’. He elaborated at length on what he had been saying for the previous fifteen years: ‘The holy Christian people are recognised by their possession of the holy word of God . . . the holy sacrament of baptism. . . the holy sacrament of the altar . . . by the holy possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune.’ Its publication showed that Luther was still in full possession of all his intellectual abilities. Other writings gave rise to the query whether the extreme anger and spleen manifested in them indicated a genuine failing of his personality, and whether he was not seriously ill. But the two things seemed to go side by side, both a continuing marked intellectual penetration and an almost desperate fury. Undoubtedly he was in pain much of the time, with head pains, heart trouble, aches in his limbs, and stone. There seems no doubt that his mind remained essentially clear, but that his inborn sensitivity was often having to digest more than it could really cope with, and that the habit of anger led to ever more violent outbursts.
Suspicion continued to be an ingredient of Luther’s relationship with other reformers, though he often tried hard to be fair to them and to be at one with them. The Wittenberg Concord which, at the time and since, had a somewhat ambiguous air about it, was a challenge. On returning to Strassburg in 1536, Capito and Bucer hatched a plan to publish Luther’s collected works, which was also a plan to bring in some much needed cash. But Luther was not enthusiastic. On 9 July 1537 he wrote to Capito: ‘I am quite cool about it . . . For I acknowledge none of them to be really a book of mine, except perhaps On the Bound Will and the Catechism.’ Capito had sent the Luthers a gold ring, and Katie had been delighted but now was furious that it had been stolen. Martin and Katie had been convinced that the ring was ‘a good omen and token of the fact that your church really is one with ours. And so the woman is crushed’. All the same we have total and sincere hope regarding unity’.
More than two years later, Luther had failed to answer a number of letters from Capito and Bucer at Strassburg, and Luther implied to the latter that he simply could not manage to write: ‘So assume that you have been promptly answered each time you write to me. For I hope there is real unity of heart between us . . . Greet reverently Herr Johann Sturm and Jean Calvin, I have read their books with special pleasure.’ The address was to ‘the illustrious man, Herr Martin Bucer, Bishop of the Church at Strassburg, a true servant of the Lord, my dearest brother in Christ’. Nearer home there was less peace.
Karlstadt was no longer a trouble. Professor of the Old Testament in Basel in the thirties and giving Henry Bullinger the same troubles that Luther had suffered in Wittenberg he finally died of the plague in 1541. But an old pupil of Luther’s took his place at Wittenberg of local, least loved ally. Agricola began to preach and write a variation of the teaching about the Law of the Old Testament, virtually rejecting it, instead of giving it the essential place it had in Paul’s and Luther’s dialectic of Law and Grace. The resultant disagreement and quarrel was violent and led to Agricola’s leaving Wittenberg. It brought out the worst in Luther. He could not bear to see God’s revelation being torn apart, but it looked also as if he could not bear being crossed. Other members of the Theology Faculty felt he was being too brutal to Agricola, and a movement arose to elect Agricola Dean of the Faculty. However, it failed, and the field was held by a short piece of Luther’s Against the Antinomians (1539) drawn up by him as a form of retraction by Agricola but containing also Luther’s complaint: ‘Good heavens, I should at least be left in peace by my own people. It is enough to be harassed by the papists. One is tempted to say with Job and Jeremiah, "I wish I had never been born."’ In the end Agricola did finally recant and was reinstated in the good graces of the political and University authorities, though he was no longer in Wittenberg.
Not all the writing in 1539 was negative. Luther had been unable to stop the drive to collect and publish his German works, and eventually wrote an Introduction to a collection published in Wittenberg under the guidance of Kaspar Cruciger and Georg Rorer. In his Introduction he wrote ironically: ‘My consolation is that in time my books will lie forgotten in the dust anyhow’, and the Scripture which he had translated would be read. But he took the opportunity to tell people the correct way to study theology, which was not so far from the advice he had given Spalatin in regard to reading Scripture more than twenty years before. Prayer came first:
Despair of your reason and understanding. . .kneel down in your little room and pray to God with real humility and earnestness that he through his dear Son may give you his Holy Spirit, who will enlighten you, lead you and give you understanding.
Meditate, that is not only in your heart but also externally by actually repeating and comparing oral speech and literal words of the book . . so that you may see what the Holy Spirit means. . . do not grow weary or think you have done enough when you have read, heard and spoken them once or twice and that you then have complete understanding. You will never be a particularly good theologian if you do that, for you will be like untimely fruit which falls to the ground before it is half ripe.
Thirdly, there is the real touchstone, temptation, attack, Anfechtung. These ‘teach you. . . to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is wisdom beyond all wisdom. . . As soon as God’s Word takes root and grows in you, the devil will hurry you, and will make a real doctor of you and by his attacks will teach you to seek and love God’s Word. I myself (if you will permit me, mere mousedirt, to be mingled with pepper) am deeply indebted to my papists that through the devil’s raging they have beaten, oppressed, and distressed me so much. . . They have made a fairly good theologian of me. Six years later, Spalatin and Rorer got the publication of Luther’s Latin works under way and persuaded Luther to write the Introduction which provided confirmation for and remains an important witness of various events in Luther’s life.
Although stormy rather than peaceful, the heart of Luther’s theology remained something personal, inward and spiritual. Luther was still the man who had responded in his early thirties to the Rhineland mystic Tauler. And there is a real sense in which he can be seen as part of a vast movement which was always starting up again in the Church to seek out the heart of Christianity, what the Germans called its Innerlichkeit, its inwardness. Inevitably, the protagonists of such movements compared the spiritual teaching and ideals which they uncovered with the daily practice of the functionaries. The movement then became one of practical reform, as well as of inner experience. Italy had seen many such movements. During the 1520s and 30s there was a new outcrop. They were mixed movements of priests and lay people often including women, devoted to following a strict rule of life in society. In Rome, Cardinal Cajetan was a member of a group called the Oratory of Divine Love. Many other groups grew up, and new Orders were started, included a new reformed version, the Capuchins, of St Francis’s famous Order of Brothers. The new theology, that of Luther and of others began to be read. A lay theologian, Contarini was convinced that much of Luther’s theology was authentic, having himself had an experience which linked with Luther’s. 1530-40 was the time of the pre-history of what came to be known as the Counter Reformation, a reformation within the papal Church itself. In 1540, the Spaniard Ignatius of Loyola and his companions visited the Pope and official recognition was granted to their Society of Jesus.
Part of this genuine movement of reform was Pope Paul III’s determination to call a Council and to undertake a serious consideration of all the ills in the Church. To this end he set up a commission to report to him. The result was the secret Report Consilium de Emendenda Ecclesia. It was a step forward from all previous reform documents. For the first time reform was not bracketed with extirpation of heresy and the defeat of the Turks, but was unashamedly itself. The authors felt themselves to be greatly daring in setting at the head of their analysis of the troubles a ‘false theory’, that the Pope owns every benefice in the Church and may sell them without doing wrong. A flurry of apology and justification surrounded this daring statement.
Then the text moved on to a formidable list of reformanda: inadequate procedures for selection and training of priests, pastoral responsibilities allotted to those living elsewhere (Campeggio as Bishop of Salisbury would be an example — but Rome was full of such men who used a part of their salary to pay a vicar to look after their diocese while they did other more congenial work in Rome); the bequeathing of benefices in wills especially to the children of priests, pluralism, failure to correct those who make money by hearing confessions. Higher education was to be looked to. The Orders had to be reformed. Occasionally, the voice became uncertain with the realisation that the Roman bureaucracy would need to find an income from somewhere. The text ended with a sequence on the public scandal of the Massing priests, ill-tempered, wearing tattered vestments as they officiated in St Peter’s. Finally, the spectacle, often referred to, of Roman hostesses who ‘walk about like honourable matrons or ride on mules and following them even in high noonday, come the most prominent of cardinals and priests’. There were seven signatories, four of them cardinals, Contarini, Carafa, Sadoleto and the Englishman Reginald Pole. It was a secret report, but within weeks copies were circulating.
Luther received a German translation of it in 1538. It seemed to him only another way of delaying the Council which had been promised so often. There was little about doctrine in it, and it seemed to be a mere tampering with the structures. He wrote to Nicholas Hausmann: ‘Those monstrosities of the Roman cardinals will be published both in Latin and German. But the malice of the matter and the wickedness of those people are beyond indignation and words. . . I am sending the papal coat of arms which I have drawn or caused to be drawn, [a cardinal’s hat over a Judas bag]. The report seemed a mere piece of hypocrisy to Luther, who published it in full with a brief introduction by himself and sharp remarks in the margin. ‘The Pope is trailing his poor council round like a cat with kittens.’ Originally destined for Mantua, then Vicenza, a number of other places had been mentioned for the Council and Trent was beginning to be thought of, up on the Brenner pass between Italian and German speaking lands. ‘If I thought they valued my advice at all I would advise these holy people simply to spare themselves the trouble of a council. After all, the only kind of council which they will tolerate. . . is one in which they can do what they please . . . Well, who then is being reformed? That great scoundrel, Nobody? The text was totally vitiated in Luther’s eyes by lack of attention to ‘God’s Word and correct doctrine. . . Nothing regarding this has to be reformed, or even considered’ were his final words in the margin.
Two months after his letter to Hausmann, Luther’s old enemy Duke George of Albertine Saxony died, and was succeeded by Duke Henry who immediately introduced reforms and Lutheran theology into his domains. It was a gain for the reformers, but the results were not all easily welcomed. The Leipzig printers had to turn over from anti-Lutheran material to the opposite. And they wanted to print Luther’s Bible. Luther wrote angrily to the Elector that he should stop them, as it would take bread out of the mouths of the Wittenbergers — ‘for it can easily be reckoned that the printers in Leipzig can sell a thousand copies more easily because all the markets are in Leipzig, than our printers can sell a hundred copies’.
In the turmoil of politics, Luther, Melancthon and others were drawn towards the end of 1539 into the marital affairs of Philip of Hesse. He had always been sexually promiscuous, but now he conceived a plan to make a high-born mistress into his wife, even though he was already married. The reformers were finally manipulated into giving permission for the old gambit of permitted bigamy actually to be practised on the example of the Patriarchs of the Old Testament. The second marriage was to be kept secret. In March 1540, Philip was secretly married in the presence of Melancthon, Bucer and others to his mistress Margaret von der Saale. The secret was soon out. Duke Henry, uncle of Philip’s first wife, the true Landgravine, was furious. A storm broke loose. Philip received such a volume of abuse that he feared for the safety of himself and his land, and began to woo the Emperor. The political leader of the reforming states was suddenly absent, and intriguing with the Emperor’s representatives. It was a loss which more than balanced out the accession of Albertine Saxony; the loss was one not only of politics but also of credibility. The reformers were widely condemned for hypocrisy or naivete.
It proved too much for Melancthon, who was taken seriously ill on his way to yet another round of negotiations on the future of the reforms that the Elector and the Emperor’s representatives were holding in Hagenau. Luther was summoned to take his place, and wrote to Katie from Weimar, at the Elector’s court, where Melancthon lay seriously ill, an euphoric letter. Doubtless he was glad to be able to see that no agreements were come to with the papists: ‘To my dearly beloved Katie, Mrs Doctor Luther, etc., to the lady at the new pig market: Personal. Grace and peace. Dear Maid Katie, Gracious Lady of Zolsdorf (and whatever other names Your Grace has). I wish humbly to inform Your Grace that I am doing well here. I eat like a Bohemian and drink like a German; thanks be to God for this. Amen.’ Philip Melancthon was already better. Then a sheaf of orders, domestic and pastoral, were fired out ending with a command to Seeberger referred to as Lyacon ‘not to neglect the mulberries by oversleeping . . . also he should tap the wine at the right time. . . Weimar, 2 July 1540, Martin Luther who loves you from his heart.’
Three more letters continued to Katie from Eisenach, in the same vein. Nothing was achieved at Hagenau, and Luther was clearly pleased with his efforts to make sure of that result.
However, Melancthon was soon well again and able to go a few months later to further talks at Worms, and then to a Diet at Ratisbon at which both the Pope and the Emperor seemed to be making one more effort to respond to Melancthon’s eirenic gestures. Cajetan had roughed out a proposal even more liberal than before, agreeing to married clergy, communion under both kinds, no doctrinal recantation and a liberal policy on the sacraments which were no longer to be operated under the same kind of canonical system. The Pope encouraged the optimists. The lay Cardinal Contarini was the leader of the peaceful party, but his fellow Cardinal, the priest Carafa (later to become Pope Paul IV) was determined to oppose him. In a similar way, Melancthon was largely alone among the reformers in looking for a compromise. Eck was there once again for the Catholics. Melancthon finally took a firmer line than expected, influenced perhaps by Jean Calvin who was present. There was agreement about justification, always possible. But when it came to the Church, the eucharist, the nature of the Mass, the invocation of Saints, negotiations broke down. Carafa won the day and persuaded the Pope to set up the Roman Inquisition.
Meanwhile, Luther had written a piece generally thought of as one of his most scurrilous, though it was not noticeably more so than many previous pieces, if equally rumbustious. Against Hans Worst, attacked and ridiculed Duke Henry of Braunschweig, a man of notorious private life, who had enraged Luther by attacking the Elector. ‘Hans Wurst’ was a German carnival clown with a leather sausage hung round his neck. The piece was largely concerned with showing, once again, that the Gospel did not need the papacy, and giving an affirmation of the Reformers’ idea of the Church. Some of Luther’s own personal history was included in the piece. In the opening pages Luther set the pace, speaking of the Duke rubbing ‘his scabby and scurvy head’ against the Elector, saying that the Duke ‘curses, blasphemes, shrieks, struggles, bellows, and spits’, and says that such books as the Duke’s ‘make me tingle with pleasure from head to toe when I see that through me, poor wretched man that I am, God the Lord maddens and exasperates the hellish and worldly princes. . . while I sit under the shade of faith and the Lord’s Prayer, laughing at the devils and their crew as they blubber and struggle in their great fury’. The Psalms, the old Jewish poems and hymns which were and are a staple prayer diet of many Christians often have expressions not much less expressive of common human emotions.
But much worse was to come. In 1545 Luther launched into a full-length tirade On the Jews and their Lies, of about 60,000 words. It was an answer to a Jewish apologetic pamphlet. It displayed Luther in a mood of extreme combativeness, aggression, bitterness and cruelty. He inherited the medieval Christian feeling that the Jews were the villains of the Christian story, as indeed passages in the New Testament make them out to be. Without the benefit of modern psychology he was unable to see how the Jews simply became a scapegoat on to whom were projected every bitter emotion of misery and revenge. If the papists and the left wing reforms had frustrated God’s purposes then the Jews had done so even more. In the twenties, Luther’s enthusiasm for his Christian faith had sometimes led him to think a time for converting Jews could be coming. The failure of this to happen added to his desperate bitterness towards the Jews. In the final section came the scandalous and brutal recommendations that synagogues should be burnt, houses razed, prayer books seized and the Jews reduced to a condition of agragrian servitude. It was almost as if Luther was determined to show, by his own example, how appallingly evil man could be.
In the following year, Luther’s fury was turned once again against his colleagues to the left in his Brief Confession, 1544. At Wittenberg he had continued to have the consecrated bread ‘elevated’, lifted up by the minister for all to see, as in the old papist days, right up till 1542 when he felt the point had been sufficiently made. It had been a gesture against the watered down theology of ‘Jack Absurdity’, Karlstadt. Luther said he preferred not to have the elevation but he did not wish to be thought to be one of those who did not believe in the true presence. Now that they had ceased to use the elevation at Wittenberg he must explain that their theology had not changed. Schwenkfeld was Luther’s current bete noir, and in this piece he is regularly called Stinkfield, Stenkfeld, lumped along with the other ‘loathsome fanatics’. In this piece all the old arguments about the precise definition of the ‘presence’ of Christ in the consecrated bread are gone over, because Luther felt that the agreement in the Wittenberg Concord had been betrayed by the Swiss reformers. While he did not believe in a ‘local’ presence of Christ’s body (the cannibalistic concept) yet Christ is ‘definitely’ and truly present. Here the anti-Catholic abuse reached fresh depths. The Pope ‘has made himself the head of Christendom, yes the anus, as the place of excrement for the devil, through which so great an abomination of Masses, monkery and unchastity has been passed into the world’.
The words were Rabelaisian, yet never verging on the obscenity of Rabelais. And through the barrage of thoroughgoing dungheap language, there was always something being said, some clear content. And commonly it was a reply to someone else’s attack on him. But many fellow reformers did not like the language and were now able to stand up to Luther in a new way. The leader of those who did so was Henry Bullinger in Switzerland, who presented an upright moral and moderate Swiss front to Luther. He objected to Luther’s attacks on the Zurichers and was not going to wait till Luther’s death to reply. ‘He boasts of being the German prophet and apostle who need learn from no one, but from whom all others must learn.’ They agreed that he had shown the way but objected to his arrogance: ‘If someone does not say what he says or if someone wishes to say more than he says then he is banished and condemned as a heretic.’ He thought Luther should not have attacked Duke Henry in such an undignified way as he did in Against Hans Worst. The Confession was answered courteously point by point.
Twenty-five years had gone by since Luther had been denounced and excommunicated by Rome, shortly followed by the Imperial outlawing. He had got used to expecting the failure of both papal and imperial policies in respect of himself. Total disillusion about their commitment either to reform in a general way or to serious examination of the doctrines of the reformers, had become a habit. But some disillusion with the results of the reforms he had achieved himself had also become a habit. Although objectively he could stand back and count up the changes which had been made and which he believed to be good, yet, he would ask himself, had anything really changed? At the heart of things? It was the same disillusion which he experienced on returning from the Wartburg in 1522, when he was horrified to find people not living by the Word. But at that time he was able to take control. After his week of sermons he was in charge. The opportunities opened up before him and his colleagues. And he found a response that enabled him to forget his threat of leaving Wittenberg for good. But now, in 1545, he looked out with increasing sadness on the standard of behaviour in Wittenberg. The shorter skirts behind, and the lower blouses in front seemed to be a signal that people were simply abusing the freedom he had brought them. The brothel was still there. Alcohol was still taken grossly in excess. In spite of all the reforms, God’s word was still ignored.
For him personally there were marvellous compensations. Katie always stood by him. She was a good wife and mother and his close companion for life. Melancthon was always there with his reverence for Luther and his subtle mind. Bugenhagen managed the pastoral scene as it should be. The University was famous, and flourished. And so the count could continue. But Luther’s depression would strike again as he turned to the deviations, the failures, his own and others. It was a world which still hardly seemed to recognise the message of the Word, still seemed to live in the world of Law. The Jews, the papacy, other reformers, obstinate old worldly Wittenbergers, they were all ripe targets for his anger compounded now with the frustration of illlness and old age. At the beginning of the year, fresh news came from Rome.
On 26 January 1545. Luther wrote to Jonas: ‘A letter of the Pope is circulating which the brethren have sent to Veit Dietrich from Venice . . . written in an absolutely arrogant and violent tone. . . to the Emperor. . . the Pope with much and great and openly Italian arrogance demands. . . why the Emperor dares to permit and promise colloquies about religion since it is not the Emperor’s place to teach but rather to listen.’ Luther wondered whether the Emperor really would start behaving like an Emperor in the days of the fourth century and call a Council: ‘What a lively reformation that will be! If it is true, then the Pope’s goose is really cooked.’ But Luther thought the idea was just a trap to coax the Protestant rulers to a political agreement.
At the Diet of Speyer in 1544 the Emperor had needed once again to gain the political support of the Protestants, or at least to assure their neutrality during his war against both Francis I of France and the Turks. On 10 June, a Recess was agreed which took the big step of agreeing to the legal rights of Protestant holders of benefices and revenues now in their hands. The Emperor was growing increasingly sceptical about whether the Pope would ever call a Council, due to duplicity or inefficiency or sheer lack of will. So the Recess spoke of a further German Diet at which a ‘Christian reformation by devout and peace loving men’ would be discussed. The Roman reaction was emphatic. The Emperor was severely put in his place in the papal text. His initiative had had a strongly stimulating effect on the Pope and Curia which made further efforts to bring a Council into being. It was now firmly called for 25 March 1545 at Trent.
Luther felt he must reply to the Roman reprimand of the Emperor, and produced the most virulent of all his anti-papal texts, Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil. It was published on Lady Day, the date the Council was due to open. Again it was primarily a statement of the authenticity of the Church as understood by the Reformers, and the invalidity, indeed positively anti-christian nature, of the papal church. But its invective is what remained in the minds of most people. On its cover was a wood cut by Cranach showing the Pope in the jaws of hell. It opened: ‘The Most Hellish Father, St Paul III, in his supposed capacity as the bishop of the Roman church, has written two briefs to Charles V, our Lord Emperor, wherein he appears furious, growling and boasting, according to the example of his predecessors that neither an Emperor nor anyone else has the right to convoke a council, even a national one except solely a pope.
In May 1545, the political merry-go-round produced a sudden reversal of priorities. The Emperor’s military fortunes rallied, and he began seriously to think about military action against the Schmalkaldic League. He began to retreat from the idea of a christian Council called by himself and to think seriously about the Pope as an ally rather than a competitor. Pope and Emperor, with faltering steps, and ever alert mutual suspicion, moved together towards enabling a traditional Council of the church to open at Trent.
When news reached Luther ‘that the Council was still being expected to open in Trent, he could only dismiss it with increasing irritation and anger, beginning to glimpse that the Catholic forces, theological, political and military were in fact beginning to come together. To the Elector he wrote on 7 May: ‘The news about the council at Trent and those who supposedly are present there, I consider to be gossip and nonsense spread the men of Rome and Mainz . . . God does not want them and they do not want him either.’ After so many false starts, and considering the great scepticism still abroad even in Trent itself about the possibility of a council actually starting, Luther’s attitude was well justified. But he was beginning to sense that he was wrong.
On 3 June he wrote to Amsdorf: ‘I do not care about diets and councils, I do not believe in anything about them, I do not expect anything from them, I do not worry about them. Vanity of vanities.’ On 9 July in a letter to Amsdorf, he was able to draw comfort from a contradiction between the Pope and the Emperor but it was a contradiction which, however it was resolved, threatened the reforms: The Pope shouts that we are heretics and that we must not have a place in the council; the Emperor wants us to consent to the council and its decrees. Perhaps God is making fools out of them; indeed Satan reigns, all of them are so totally mad that they condemn us and at the same time ask for our consent.’ In fact, no ‘consent’ was now being asked for, but rather the assent of subjects. Luther was beginning to take the matter of the council at Trent seriously, and felt he must make his own position about the relation between Pope and Council clear: ‘Let the Pope first acknowledge that the council is superior to him and let him listen to the council . . . Farewell in the Lord, my Reverend Father! Both of us are old; perhaps in a short while we will have to be buried. My torturer, the stone, would have killed me on St Johns day [The Nativity of St John the Baptist, 24 June] had God not decided differently. I prefer death to such a tyrant.’
On 16 July in a letter to Jonas, Luther retailed further evidence of the progress of the Council of Trent, and of its futility: ‘The man of Mainz [Cardinal Albrecht] has sent some ridiculous delegates to the council but that monster laughs at the same time about us and the Pope. The council is really Tridentum [the Latin for Trent], that is, in German, torn apart, split up, and dissolved. . . I absolutely believe they do not know what they are doing.’ On 17 July the anxiety about the Council is mounting, as he writes to Amsdorf: ‘From Trent comes news that twenty-three bishops and three cardinals are present. . .May they have a bad time, as the wrath of God moves them.’
Later in the month, on a journey to help settle a controversy at Zeit, near Naumburg, and to ordain a bishop in Merseburg, all the burdens suddenly became more than Luther could tolerate, and the simple decision not to return to Wittenberg took hold of him. A scandalous story of seduction in Wittenberg was the trigger. He sent blunt and practical instructions home to Katie in a letter (28 July), written in his normal matter-of-fact vein as though nothing very special was really being said. Katie must have known very well the anguish and misery that lay behind the words, understood how her husband was making the greatest gesture he could of protest against a life which had become finally too burdensome: ‘To my kind and dear mistress of the house, Luther’s Katherine von Rora, a preacher, a brewer, a gardener, and whatever also she is capable of doing. Grace and peace! Dear Katie, Johann will tell you everything . . .’ The oldest son had accompanied Luther. ‘I would like to arrange matters in such a way that I do not have to return to Wittenberg. My heart has become cold, so that I do not like to be there any longer. I wish you would sell the garden and field, house and all. Also I would like to return the big house [the old Friary] to my Most Gracious Lord. It would be best for you to move to Zolsdorf as long as I am still living and able to help you to improve the little property with my salary.’ He says she will never be able to stay in Wittenberg after his death, they will hound her out one way or another. ‘They have started to bare women and maidens in front and back, and there is no one who punishes or objects . .’ And then a reference to the scandal: ‘While in the country I have heard more than I find out while in Wittenberg. Consequently I am tired of this city. . . I shall keep on the move and would rather eat the bread of a beggar than torture and upset my old age and final days with the filth at Wittenberg which destroys my hard and faithful work. You might inform Dr Pomer and Master Philip of this (if you wish) and if Doctor Pomer would wish to say goodbye to Wittenberg on my behalf. For I am unable any longer to endure my anger and dislike.’
It was the dangerous acting out of fantasy. Two days previously, Luther had preached at Leipzig and had been the guest of honour at the house of one of its wealthiest citizens, Heintz Scherle. The letter was a great sigh of the spirit, ‘My heart has grown cold’, a protest and a shout of pain. It put Melancthon into a great state. He worried that arguments which had been going on between Luther and the Law Faculty, and with himself, were the real cause. He had been pegging out once again his understanding of the eucharist, with some sympathy with Swiss ideas, and using words noticeably different from those Luther used. He feared greatly that these things were the real cause of the trouble. Doubtless they had contributed to the psychological pressure which had finally triggered the only action tolerable to Luther, to rid himself of the whole terrible burden of his daily life. But they were not at the heart of the pressure, which was not essentially different from what it had always been. Only now it became intolerable to the weary, prematurely aged revolutionary.
The practical men saw what to do. The Elector and High Chancellor Bruck, along with Ratzeberger, Luther’s medical doctor, took the matter in hand. Luther was told it could be quite complicated getting the property on to the market. Measures for the reform of morals in Wittenberg were promised, doubtless in good faith. Kind, practical men provided medical attention, hospitality and genuine sympathy, and Luther was talked round. The miseries did not go away but he came back to Wittenberg and life went on as before. And somehow, in the eyes of his friends and his family, he was not diminished. They were glad to do him a service, to see him needing help, and glad to be able to give it. He came back and resumed his lectures on the final pages of Genesis, lectures which he had begun ten years before.
Luther’s family, including a wide range of distant relatives, were always part of his life. His childhood home was only forty miles away, and it was there to Mansfeld that he was asked to go in October along with Melancthon and Jonas, to help untangle an argument about property and privileges and jurisdiction among the ruling family. But nothing was achieved. They had to depart. Back in Wittenberg, Luther reached the last verse of Genesis with its symbolical ending, and its atmosphere of promise and faith which were so much part of Luther’s faith: ‘At length Joseph said to his brothers, I am about to die; but God will be sure to remember you kindly and take you back from this country to the land that he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And Joseph made Israel’s sons swear an oath, "When God remembers you with kindness be sure to take my bones from here." Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten; they embalmed him and laid him in his coffin in Egypt.’ Luther closed his book and said: ‘May our Lord God grant to somebody else to make a better job of it. I can no more, I am too weak — pray to God for me that he will give me a good, blessed end’ — a Stundlein, a little hour, a word he often used for his last hour. He was ever more and more waiting and hoping for it.
In January, Luther set out once again to solve the quarrels of the Counts of Mansfeld, with his sons in attendance. At Halle on his way to Eisleben, he was held up by floods which he personified in a letter to Katie of 25 January as a ‘huge she-Anabaptist’ which ‘met us with waves of water and great floating pieces of ice; she threatened to baptise us again and has covered the countryside.’ They had left Halle but had to turn back. ‘I am sure that, if you were here, you too would have advised us to proceed in this way; you see, at least once we are following your advice.’
On February, Luther wrote again to Katie now in the thick of the attempts to solve the family quarrel. It was addressed in the usual way to the lady of Zolsdorf and the pig market, discussed the possibility that a local community of Jews were responsible for the blast of cold wind which had attacked him as he travelled, recorded the excellent local and laxative beer (three bowel movements in three hours), and told Katie, ‘The day before yesterday your little sons drove to Mansfeld’. John, Martin and Paul took the opportunity to visit uncles and aunts and cousins. To Melancthon he revealed in a letter of the same date that he was not well, suffering from heart trouble, that he was upset by the arguments he was having to umpire and wanted to be shot of the whole thing as soon as possible. It was all ‘totally incompatible with my disposition, and quite bothersome to my old age’.
Two days later he wrote again to Melancthon that he was ‘playing the role of a sick goat’, unable to solve the difficulties, said that the chimney in his room had caught fire, and ended, ‘Pray for me that the Lord may bring me back before I am killed by these battles of the wills.’
On 6 February, he wrote again both to his wife and Melancthon, asking the latter to get the Elector to send him a letter ordering him home, in an attempt to shock the Counts and the rest of the family into agreement. He was finding the lawyers as tiresome as ever: ‘You may say this is a word-war or a word-insanity, a pleasure one owes to jurists. . . so many ambiguities, sophistries and chicaneries . . . their jargon is more confusing than all the tongues of Babylon.’ To Katie he reported that he still could not get away and that the children were still at Mansfeld.
On 7 February, a letter to Katie told her to stop worrying: ‘You prefer to worry about me instead of letting God worry, as if he were not almighty. . . Free me from your worries. I have a caretaker who is better than you and all the angels; he lies in the cradle and rests on a virgin’s bosom, and yet, nevertheless, he sits at the right hand of God, the almighty Father.’ But the quarrel went on, and he told Katie and the rest of them to ‘pray, pray, pray’ so that it could be finished. Meanwhile, however, ‘we are living well: for each meal the city council gives me one half Stubig of Italian wine.’ Three days later, he is again saying he is healthy and she must stop worrying and the quarrel is still tiresome. Then at last, on 14 February, he was able to write that the quarrel had been resolved. ‘We hope to return home again this week . . . The young lords are happy and ride around together in sleighs decorated with fools’ bells as do the young ladies. . . I am sending you the trout.’ The children remained at Mansfeld. There were rumours again of political troubles, of mercenaries being hired.
Luther had to stay on another two days to get documents signed and the whole matter sealed. But the effort of it all had proved too much for him. He had a heart attack and became seriously ill on 17 February. He sank rapidly. Friends gathered. He reaffirmed his faith. In the early morning of 18 February he died, in pain but mentally alert. He was always writing and no one can be sure what were the last words he wrote. But among the last was a note on his desk, which ended ‘The truth is, we are beggars.’ A funeral service was held in Eisleben and an attempt was made by the Counts of Mansfeld to have him buried there. But the Elector insisted that the body be brought back to Wittenberg.